My opinion about my opinion

Debate in progress

A while ago, I had a little email exchange with one of my editors in London (The Economist’s HQ). I had written an article and the question was whether or not I should also write a Leader (ie, an editorial). In other words, should The Economist, through my words, opine, and how exactly?

The editor wrote to me:

I was very intrigued by the idea, and there was a lot of interest in the meeting. The problem is the prescription. I think you’re inclined to [subject omitted]; but I’m not inclined to go as far as that….

As you see, I excised the actual topic of discussion, because it is utterly irrelevant to my point here. Here is what I replied:

I’ve actually (as usual) got no clear “prescriptions” in my mind at all. I just made up some stuff to pitch a Leader outline to you. I’m always surprised by how interested we at The Economist are in our own opinions. Personally, I’m 99% interested in understanding the problem, and quite flexible in the other 1%…

Because the editor and I know each other well, I knew my cavalier tone would not be misunderstood. (In the end, there was no space in that week for that Leader anyway.) But then I realized that my point was perhaps more fundamental. How so?

The searcher and the preacher as archetype

You know you’re in trouble when somebody begins a monologue with “There are two kinds of people…”. But we might indeed stipulate that, yes, there are two kinds of people: searchers and preachers. You might even consider them Jungian archetypes (about which we haven’t talked for a while).

The preacher:

  • This sort really, really cares what he or she believes (rather than knows).
  • It matters to him what his opinion is, and also what your opinion is. That is because, to preachers, individuals are defined by their opinions.
  • Whether the opinions are based on good information or bad, whether they conform to reality or not, whether they acknowledge or exclude good alternatives — all this is by no means irrelevant, but of at best minor interest to a preacher.

The searcher:

  • He might or might not be interested in his own opinions, because he is forever in the process of forming one. This process (essentially one of learning) is much more interesting than any opinion that might temporarily emerge from it.
  • The searcher is also, as Walt Whitman might say, aware of the internal contradictions in any given opinion and quite intrigued by them, in an almost flirtatious way.
  • Much more important is the search for good information and the discrimination against bad, and a proper understanding of all conceivable alternative views.
  • If the preacher secretly hopes to achieve consensus on a single “story”, the searcher always hopes that all “other stories” keep circulating simultaneously. (As in: the Single versus the Other Story.)

And yes, of course, we’re all a bit of both, but in different proportions. Personally, for once, I’m not that confused about what I am: a searcher.

Which is to say: I have lots of opinions, but the opinion I’m proudest of is my opinion about my opinions. Generally, I’m quite suspicious of them. I interrogate them, and they answer back. Fascinating conversations.

Quite a few of us at The Economist are, individually, searchers. And yet, The Economist itself, as a whole, is clearly in the preacher camp. An interesting point to ponder.

24 thoughts on “My opinion about my opinion

  1. I wonder how many people there are that would describe themselves as preachers rather than searchers. Most certainly, our general tendency is to regard ourselves as open-minded and independent thinkers who will go wherever the facts lead us. At least I’ve never heard anyone claim they were more interested in their own opinions than in reality.

    • That issue comes down entirely to what they call “framing”. Sure, if you ask people to pick between the archetypes as I’ve framed them, even Cable-TV hosts will say they’re searchers, not preachers.

      But look around: Most bumper stickers scream opinion without search (=> driver is a preacher).

      In politics: If Karl Rove does the framing, searchers are in fact “flip floppers”, and preachers “have spine” or “values”. How would people self-identify then?

      In general, contemporary American society in particular hugely overvalues opinion, and undervalues searching/learning/reconsidering.

      The subspecies of humanity that comes closest to pure searching must be science (provided the scientific method is followed with integrity): you actually TRY to falsify your own hunch, and when you do you CELEBRATE, because that = progress.

    • Science rocks. The problem is that the whole “searcher is better than preacher” attitude itself has preachy overtones. It’s a bit of a catch-22.

  2. I fully agree that vigilantly searching for more information is better than settling on an answer. But I wonder if your formulation is a genuflection to inertia. I don’t know if you got a chance to read my recent piece on a provisional default for practical skepticism, but our posts may be related. One of my examples focuses on the alleged and discredited casual autism-vaccine link. Searchers may not want to “prescribe” an answer, but doctors need to prescribe the inoculation or decide to prescribe nothing. No prescription isn’t an option. This paradox of policy agnosticism can be applied to most problems – economics, social policy, foreign policy, etc – which is why you were able to omit the subject in your quotation. I wonder how you square this with your framework.

    • Yes, I read your post now. I’m all for philosophical skepticism.

      What I was saying in this post is really narrower, more circumscribed: Journalists and writers should not need to feel that they are policymakers or doctors (to use your two examples). It’s absolutely fine to write a cracking good story, or to tell a tale that helps readers understand a problem but without offering a solution. Often we, as journalists or just people in social discourse, rush to some “opinion”, which is really of no interest.

      Decisiveness — how one uses imperfect information to make a decision when such a decision is called for — is a different issue.

    • I agree. If journalists were more dedicated to “searching” you’d imagine they be more adversarial. I don’t think the mainstream media is as terrible as is fashionable to say (although cable news might be save 1 or 2 shows), but there is no question they are far too deferential to public figures and their stories. It’s a major reason I’m so happy about blogging and other new media. Of course, more bloggers could certainly stand to do less preaching and more understanding.

    • I’m still not seeing the practical difference between what we call “preaching” as opposed to “searching/understanding,” except as a function of whether or not what we hear or read accords with our personal views. Obviously, if those whose views differ from our own truly strove to search and understand, they would be echoing ours.

  3. “……The Economist…… clearly in the preacher camp……..”

    While undoubtedly so, aren’t journals in the preacher camp to a greater or lesser degree? If they weren’t, they wouldn’t make money and therefore wouldn’t last long.

    I suggest that journals, including the Economist, have to satisfy an innate need in their readers to be told, by means of editorial sermons, what to think about the great issues of the day. They instill an implicit belief system (an ideology) in their congregations of the like-minded (their readers) to provide them comfort and succour in an uncertain world.

    “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”, might best be inscribed at the top of websites of all the important journals.

    • Funny you should ask that: I was just discussing it with my editor-in-chief today while he was visiting.
      No, I don’t think journalists fall naturally into the preacher camp. You also have the “storyteller” personality (of which I make so much here on the HB). The storyteller has a different agenda. It cannot be “objective” (because no human thought ever is), since the mere selection and framing of a story assumes a worldview or “angle” or “focus”. But often this merely point you to something you’re interested in, and you (the journalist) then go, literally, in search of the story. You actually HOPE to be surprised by what you find. And at the end of the journey, you don’t necessarily arrive at any prescription at all.

      Incidentally, my editor and I were discussing whether readers do actually want our opinion as much as we think they want it. Typically (and to our delight) we find that our most obsessive (= loyal) readers tend to disagree violently with us… and then renew their subscription.

    • While journalists don’t fall naturally into the preacher camp, is it not true that the magazines they write for do have an ideology or worldview? If so, then what their journalists write would need to be consistent with the worldview of their employers. In any case, writers of editorials do fall into the preacher camp; and, are not most editorial writers usually journalists too?

      Although the Economist may have some obsessive readers who disagree vehemently with at least some of what it writes, are these disagreements more to do with specific issues, rather than with the Economist’s general world view? Wouldn’t it be true to say that most Economist readers would concur with its general world view, and so are willingly guided by what the Economist’s editorials say about any of the contentious issues of the day?

    • That’s what I was trying to say at the end of the post: “Quite a few of us at The Economist are, individually, searchers. And yet, The Economist itself, as a whole, is clearly in the preacher camp. An interesting point to ponder.”

      So, yes, the magazine DOES preach. It also searches. But it’s interesting that you can construct out of individual temperaments a collective one that has different properties, a bit as you can mix different elements to form molecules that behave differently than their atoms do.

    • When, in my previous comment, I wrote “……..Although the Economist may have……..readers who disagree vehemently with at least some of what it writes……..”, I had put “vehemently” in italics to draw attention to your using “violently” when describing the extent of some readers disagreements with some of the Economist’s opinions.

      Now, if these readers express their disagreements by throwing rocks through windows at the Economist’s offices, or by beating up Economist editors when they emerge from the building at night, then these disagreements are of course “violent”. But, absent actual violence, I suggest that these disagreements are merely “vehement”.

      Besides, “vehement” is so much more elegant a word than “violent” when there’s no actual violence involved.

      While I have the floor here, may I say something about the ubiquitous use of “revolting” in sentences such as “the oppressed masses arerevolting against their masters”. Since “revolting” is a synonym for “disgusting”, might it not be more felicitous to use “rebelling” instead of “revolting” in sentences such as the above?

      Besides, “rebelling” is so much more elegant a word than “revolting” when describing acts of rebellion.

      Notwithstanding my grimacing each time I see or hear “violently” and “revolting” in the contexts I’ve described, I realise that their use in these contexts is now the norm. However, I intuit that editors at the Economist would agree with all I’ve said.

  4. There’s nothing wrong with holding strong convictions, caring about them or even preaching about them. What matters is the willingness and happiness to revise them or abandon them altogether and admit as much.

    It’s also important not to get personal, except in jest, and to avoid violence, if possible.

    I might be mistaken, but I doubt it.

    • No, there’s nothing at all wrong with convictions and we all have them. What I’m talking about it individual temperament: there ARE people who are totally wound up in their own opinions, and there are others who prefer to inquire, to be surprised, etc.

    • I’ve a problem understanding this post, then.

      Are you making a scientific observation and classification (to the extent the topic yields to scientific analysis) or, having regard to the fact that you are able to classify yourself, a tacit subjective judgment, with a preference for searchers?

      If I’m way off beam, don’t bother to reply.

  5. Stephen Dunn, a really good contemporary American poet, is also thinking about these questions (shifting opinions, multiple stories). His poem begins with an epigraph, which, evidently, is a Japanese proverb: “The reverse side also has a reverse side.” I like it.

    The Reverse Side

    It’s why when we speak a truth
    some of us instantly feel foolish
    as if a deck inside us has been shuffled
    and there it is–the opposite
    of what we said.

    And perhaps why as we fall in love
    we’re already falling out of it.

    It’s why the terrified and the simple
    latch onto one story,
    just one version of the great mystery.

    Image & afterimage, oh even
    the open-minded yearn for a fiction
    to rein things in–
    the snapshot, the lie of a frame

    How do we not go crazy,
    we who have found ourselves compelled
    to live within the circle, the elipsis, the word
    not yet written.

    • beautiful and haunting poem.

      thanks for sharing and glad to have you still around.

      i think we do not go crazy by being willing to suspend our disbelief when necessary. “the simple and the terrified” do love their “absolutes” and i don’t mean vodka!

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